in: Living, Podcast, Reading

• Last updated: October 26, 2023

Podcast #936: Zombies, Minecraft, and Dealing with Uncertainty

In order to thrive in a world that’s constantly in flux, you have to learn to overcome your fear of the unknown and adapt yourself to whatever circumstance you find yourself in. Zombies and Minecraft can teach how to do both.

Today on the show, I talk to Max Brooks, son of famed filmmaker Mel Brooks, who is the author of books that include World War Z and a series of Minecraft novels for kids. Max and I discuss how he’s used his fiction to explore learning to be resilient in the face of change and how his work writing about the zombie apocalypse led to a gig at the Modern War Institute at West Point. Along the way, Max offers insights on overcoming your fear of the unknown and how Minecraft can help your kids learn how to thrive in a world where becoming a creative problem solver is the name of the game.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In order to thrive in a world that’s constantly in flux, you have to learn to overcome your fear of the unknown and adapt yourself to whatever circumstance you find yourself in. Zombies and Minecraft can teach you how to do both. Today on the show, I talk to Max Brooks, son of famed filmmaker Mel Brooks, who is the author of books that include World War Z and a series of Minecraft novels for kids. Max and I discuss how he’s used his fiction to explore learning to be resilient in the face of change, and how his work writing about the zombie apocalypse led to a gig at the Modern War Institute at West Point. Along the way, Max offers insights on overcoming your fear of the unknown and how Minecraft can help your kids learn how to thrive in a world where becoming a creative problem-solver is the name of the game. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright, Max Brooks, welcome to the show.

Max Brooks: Good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So, you’ve had a really interesting career as a writer. I know a lot of our listeners have read your books. You famously wrote The Zombie Survival Guide and then later World War Z, which got turned into that Brad Pitt movie. And that led to an opportunity to serve as a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. And then you’ve written some other fiction. You did something about the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I. And then you’ve also been doing a series of books based on Minecraft, books for kids. And, I gotta say my 10-year-old daughter, Scout, she’s a big Minecraft fan. She plays the game. She also reads the books. And I told her that I was interviewing Max Brooks. She said, “Well, let him know that Max Brooks writes the best Minecraft books.”

Max Brooks: [chuckle] That’s awesome.

Brett McKay: So a big endorsement there from Scout McKay, age 10, of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I wanna talk about your writing career more, ’cause I think your career as a writer tracks a theme that you see throughout your work, and that is adaptability and navigating new changes in your environment. Let’s talk about your zombie writing. What got you writing about zombies back in the early 2000s? What were you hoping to explore with writing about a zombie apocalypse?

Max Brooks: Well, actually, it was just fear, really just to be brutally honest. When I was about 12 or 13, I used to sneak into my parents’ room, ’cause they had cable, when they’d go out to dinner. And I found myself watching an Italian cannibal zombie movie, and it was really brutal. And it’s scared just the living hell out of me. And for years I thought, “Oh my God, what would I do if there were really zombies?” And then, in the 90s, Y2K was coming around. For your younger listeners who don’t remember, it was this mass panic that on New Year’s Eve, year 2000, all the computers were gonna reset, bank records would disappear, nuclear missiles would launch and land on the farms, and peoples really start thinking about survival. And so, I thought, “Well, what would happen if it was a zombie apocalypse?” Now, I should say that in the interim I had seen a movie that gave me hope, and it was Night of the Living Dead, because suddenly there were rules. There actually was a way to survive. It wasn’t that sort of dark euro feeling of like you’re just doomed. It was an American ideal, which is, yes, you can have a happy ending if you know what you’re doing. And so I really started to think about it. And then I saw Dawn of the Dead in graduate school, and I really started thinking about it.

So by the time Y2K came around, I thought as a pure exercise, just for me, I’m gonna take a few hours every day, every night, and then just write a guide book on how to survive a zombie attack. And that’s where it came from. And it sat in a drawer for years. And then when I was on Saturday Night Live, I met this book agent who thought he could get me a book deal. And it got published, marketed absolutely wrong, completely wrong, because they tried to portray it as making fun of zombies. A zombie joke book written by Mel Brooks Jr, that’s how they tried to portray it. And I warned them. I said, “It’s gonna be a disaster, because people expecting jokes are not gonna get it. And my tribe, the horror nerds, who I am of and who don’t know me yet, are gonna think that Mel Brooks’ Hollywood brat is taking a giant dump on everything that they love.” And that’s exactly what happened. Mainstream media hated it. Horror nerds hated it. And thank God, I was married to the best woman ever who said, “You need to throw that marketing plan out and market it yourself.” So I went to Fangoria on my knees, begged for an interview, “Let me introduce myself to you” and slowly but surely I established my street cred as a zombie nerd.

Brett McKay: And that eventually led to World War Z as kind of the follow-up to… You were kind of putting the things you wrote about in Zombie Survival Guide and playing it out, like war-gaming it.

Max Brooks: Yeah, because… Well, ’cause Zombie Survival Guide was all about how an individual or a small group would survive. And I took it to the next level in World War Z because, as a lover of zombie stories, I realized that almost every zombie story I’ve seen is about small groups but it didn’t answer a big question I had which is, “What about countries? How would governments survive? How would big systems survive? International trade? International relations? How would we as a species survive a zombie plague, because zombie plagues are big?” And there was no book out there for me, so I thought I’d write it myself and… One of my favorite books growing up was The Good War by Studs Terkel. It’s an interview with survivors, participants, in World War II. I had listened to it. My mother gave me the audio book, because I’m very dyslexic.

And I always loved it, and I thought, “That’s my template. I’m gonna do a book, interviews with survivors, and that’s the best way to try to tell this giant, global story of a zombie outbreak.”

Brett McKay: What do you think was going on in the zeitgeist in the 2000s where people were really into zombies? And we even… I remember doing some content on the website, zombie themed content. What do you think Was going on? Why did zombies have moment during that period.

Max Brooks: No idea. If I was good at understanding the marketplace, they probably wouldn’t have fired me off Saturday Night Live, I don’t know how to write for an audience, I don’t know how to judge trends, I just don’t know, all I can do is write for me, and this is what was important to me at the time, and I guess I just got lucky that what was important to me happened to be important to other people.

Brett McKay: And how did writing about zombies lead to a position as a fellow at the modern War Institute at West Point? That seems quite the leap.

Max Brooks: Well, for me, what happened was when I wrote these books, I wanted to make them as real as possible, I’m a huge Tom Clancy fan, I grew up loving his stuff, and I love that he took this sort of Ian Flemming, pseudo-macho male psycho-sexual fantasy of James Bond and just threw it away and said, How do real spies act, how do real submarines work as a giant nerd and wanna be… He decided to educate his readers as well as entertain them, and I realized that’s what I wanna be too, so like zombie survival guide, if you take away the zombies, it is a disaster prep manual, everything in it it’s 100% real from dehydration to clean socks to breaking in your shoes to which guns are gonna jam the most… It’s all real. I did, I did just a ton of homework, same thing with World War Z, I studied how systems work, how countries work. So what happened was, I got a call after the book came out from Admiral wise cup at the United States Naval War College, and he invited me to come and speak to the students. And I said, Are you sure you have the right guy? And said, Yeah, no, no, no, no.

We got the right guy. I love World War Z, and if you take out the zombies, you have written a credible scenario of how our planet would respond to a global catastrophe, and I want you to come speak about how systems are inter-linked and how they can collapse. And I did, and I must have said something. Right, although it doesn’t seem that way. I think the YouTube video is still out there, and I’m just flop sweating like Albert Brooks in broadcast news and saying something like, are you sure the orders didn’t get mixed up, there isn’t like a Lieutenant Commander Max Brooks wandering around, Comic-Con. But I must have said something, right, because then I was invited to come back and then I was invited to speak at other military forums, and then I was invited to be a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security to study global crises, and then I was invited to speak at a listening tour at the Pentagon, this is where generals come around and… They try to be open to new ideas. So right before me, Sebastian Younger came up and spoke about what is facing the average infantryman in Afghanistan, and I got up and I spoke about how the American public is 100% divorced from the global war on terror.

I said, if you’re just going on pop culture references, 9/11 never happened, and you need to re-introduce the American people to those who protect them because the sheep and sheep dog model is not working and it’s not sustainable. And there was a young captain, John Spencer in the back of the room, just got back from Iraq, and he said to me, Listen, we’re starting up a brand new think tank called the Modern War Institute. We are going to study how we fight each other, and no ideas are off the table, and we’d love you to come in as a fellow and bring your perspective. And that’s how I got into the MWI.

Brett McKay: And so what are you doing there? What kind of research and writing are you doing for the think-tank?

Max Brooks: I study crises that are non-kinetic at the moment, when I say non-kinetic, I mean crises that will eventually lead to shooting if they’re left unattended like… Perfect example, one of the articles I wrote for the modern War Institute was about food insecurity, because the United States is the only great power in world history that has never been vulnerable to food Blackmail… All the other great powers, Russia, Britain, Ancient Rome, Japan, you name it. Somebody has held a gun to their head and said, I’m gonna cut off your food supply if you don’t comply, but not us, even in the darkest days of our civil war, we were still growing enough surplus wheat to sell to Great Britain for profits, all that changed with Monsanto, because Monsanto has patented their seeds as if it were intellectual property, and so then if a farmer grows a field of wheat from Monsanto and then takes a little piece of those seeds that harvest later and banks them and then re-plants them the next year, he goes to jail for copyright infringement, the same way you’re copying a DVD. So Monsanto established that precedent, which means that now for the first time since the birth of the Agricultural Revolution, farmers are not allowed to bank their seeds anymore, and for a company that basically has…

I think at the time it was something like 90% of our soybeans, 80% of our corn. That’s huge. And if that’s not bad enough, Monsanto was sold to Bayer, German company. Now we have a security treating with them, they are our friends, they are our allies, but there was nothing in the bill of sale that would stop Bayer from selling Monsanto say to China, and if that ever happened, you can see a scenario where China is ready to invade Taiwan and times it at planting season and makes a call to the President of the US and says, Listen, you better back the hell off, or we are going to withhold our seeds, and maybe you won’t starve, but the panic that will ensue and the riots and the looting and the death will be a hell of a lot worse than anything our army could ever do to you, we have the potential to kill more Americans than if we actually went to war with you.

Brett McKay: That’s crazy. So to me it sounds like the modern war institute is using your talent as a fiction writer where you can think about a plot line from a single point and see where that can carry out and helping them figure out what are some potential scenarios…

Max Brooks: Yeah. That’s what I do is I take my imagination as a novelist and look at the real situation, and also the kind of novels I write always go just below the surface, like with zombies. I write about the fact that most people wouldn’t really die in a zombie apocalypse from zombies, they would die from second and third order effects like dehydration, malnutrition, infection, it’s the same thing in national security, like when I wrote about cyber security, my research showed me that we actually have the technology to ward off any kind of cyber attack from any enemy, the problem is we don’t have a doctrine, we don’t have a strategy and how to use it, there’s literally no master plan for how to protect us from the great hack, and our enemies know that, they have plans, they have doctrine, they’ve been working on it actually, since Desert Storm on how to hurt us, but imagine if you had a bunch of warships but no plan on how to use them, which has actually happened in history. So that’s kind of what I do.

Brett McKay: And then how did you make the connection with Minecraft? How did that collaboration happen.

Max Brooks: When I first saw my son’s… He’s 18 now but when he was a little boy, assuming he was about eight maybe playing Minecraft, and I played it with him, I realized this had the potential to be possibly… I’m not exaggerating possibly the greatest teaching tools since the printing press, and that is because you and me, and everyone on this planet has been trained in the industrial model of education, and that model of education was designed to help human beings thrive in the industrial revolution. This new crazy business model in the 18th century of breaking down labor into an assembly line instead of one person making a shoe, it’s 10 people making a part of the shoe, and whoever could master that could master the world, so it became about memorization, regurgitation, standardization as the clock is ticking. And it worked. In fact, it worked so well that Japan mastered it. And then ate us for breakfast in the 1980s, the problem is the Industrial Revolution is in the rear view mirror now, and the workforce has changed, and so today’s kids have to learn a whole new skill set. They’ve gotta be innovators, they’ve gotta be resilient, they’ve gotta be fluid problem solvers, and our method of education teaches them exactly the opposite.

So what the hell do you do? And watching my son play this video game, I realized, Wow, this game, if curated correctly, can teach kids everything their brain needs to know about how to become resilient, creative problem-solvers.

Brett McKay: No, I would agree. So my daughter, she loves to play Minecraft, and I’m always impressed ’cause I’ll check in on her, Hey, What are you doing in Minecraft? And then she’ll show me the stuff she’s made… And what’s crazy about Minecraft, the way it’s formatted? It’s an open world. You can do whatever you want in it. And I’m always impressed with these crazy contraption she makes with all the… I guess it’s red stone, is what it is, and then you can make like these…

Max Brooks:Oh, yeah. Red Stone.

Brett McKay: Yeah, red stone’s like this magic stone where you can basically make machines inside, so she’s made roller coasters, she’s made these elaborate mazes with secret doors, if you light a torch, it’ll set off this chain reaction that will… And I’m like, This is crazy. I mean, what… Growing up, my video game was like Super, Mario Brothers where it was just a line and that was it, it’s completely different gaming experience from other video games.

Max Brooks: Oh, exactly, like imagine if you played Call of Duty, but the best way to take out the enemy team was to have an authoritarian government on your side that then has very cheap labor that then entices the other team’s government to outsource their manufacturing base to your side. So your side makes their bullets and then withholds the bullets when the shooting starts it… That’s literally how China is eating us for lunch, but there’s no video game out there, certainly not a game like Call of Duty that could do that, whereas Minecraft, you actually can… Whereas in Minecraft, you are given hard and fast rules, especially if you play on survival, like you’re gonna starve or the sun is gonna go down and the monsters are gonna come out, you’re gonna die, so you do have hard and fast goals like shelter and food, but how you accomplish those goals… Totally up to you.

Brett McKay: Oh yeah, Minecraft also has zombies. Those are the monsters, right?

Max Brooks: Minecraft has zombies.

Brett McKay: Right. There’s the other connection.

Max Brooks: Thanks Mojang.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I wanna dig deeper into some of the themes you write about in all of your work, and a big one is how we respond to this state of uncertainty that comes with dramatic change, and you see this in the Minecraft books, I read the island, the intro to the island’s awesome. This character is put in this completely foreign situation, he’s trying to figure what’s going on… You see this in World War Z, what’s the typical response? Human response to dramatic change.

Max Brooks: Initially, there is shock and paralysis, sometimes there’s denial. It really depends on your personality type. Some people simply cannot accept, the world has changed and is doing everything possible to get back to where they were, there’s a frustration, anger, tantrums, bargaining, there’s so many different stages of dealing with crisis, and there’s no one size-fits all. Like I said, it depends on who you are and how you deal. But that’s always what I study because my life has always been constant change, and I think maybe growing up with dyslexia, I never got a chance to just cruise through life. I think a lot of times, it depends on who you are and how you struggled in your formative years, to how you deal with crisis when you’re a grown up…

Brett McKay: Right. People have talked about whenever we experience a disruption in our environment, there’s either the fight, flight, or freeze response. And a lot of times people think it’s either fight or flight, but I think a lot of times people just freeze. I mean, you’ve probably, people have probably seen videos where something crazy happens, right? A car goes through a storefront. And it’s funny that the amount of people you see just sit there watching, their brain can’t compute what is going on. And it takes like a minute or two for them to finally figure out, oh my gosh, something really bad’s happened. I got to do something.

Max Brooks: Yeah. One of the fellows at the Bonner War Institute, combat veteran of Iraq, multiple tours, he once told me, apparently everybody freezes, but it’s a question of for how long do you freeze? Because some people freeze for a nanosecond. So that way it doesn’t look like they freeze. But some people freeze for a really long time. I mean, Joseph Stalin totally locked up for hours and hours when Hitler attacked. When they were like, Comrade Stalin, the Nazis are coming. And he’s like, no, no, Hitler would never do that to me. We’re friends. We signed a non-aggression pact. General MacArthur totally froze right after Pearl Harbor for a day. He was commander of US forces in the Philippines. He’d heard about Pearl Harbor and didn’t spring into action and didn’t ready their forces. So literally the next day when the Japanese attacked the Philippines, they pulled another Pearl Harbor.

Brett McKay: Well, I mean, how do we overcome that tendency to freeze when we experience a big shift in life? Have you uncovered anything in your own life or observing and studying war?

Max Brooks: Yeah. I think that from what I have seen is that we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The sooner the better, we have to train ourselves to always be doing uncomfortable things, trying new things. That feeling you had like your first day at a new school when you were a little kid, it’s the worst feeling in the world, right? Absolute worst feeling. Likewise, your best feeling for a lot of us is like second semester senior year in high school when you know everything. Now I’ve always believed in, I’ve always seen is that that feeling of your first day as a little kid in a new school is actually when you’re at your best, is when you’re at your most nimble and you’re most willing to try something new and you’re at your worst when you’re a high school senior. And so it’s not too complicated to describe. It’s just for me, I’ve always found that when I have that feeling in my gut of being feeling small and scared and angry, that’s when I’m at my best because it means I’m over my head and I’m trying something new and I’m growing.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for your words from our sponsors. And now back to the show. And another thing you talk about in your work is that this unwillingness to recognize or accept the change that’s happening, this can bite you in the butt, not only in a survival situation, but it can bite you in the butt in your career, right? Like you may be in an industry that’s changing, like you’re used to it being a certain way because you got started 20 years ago, but now thanks to the internet, it’s changing. You think, well, maybe this change isn’t going anywhere. It’s just a fad. And then 10 years later, you’re out of a job because that fad that you thought was a fad just ate your lunch.

Max Brooks: Oh yeah. I mean, who invented the digital camera? Kodak. They had the first patent. They could have ruled the market in digital cameras, but they’re a film company. And they said, oh no, no, that’s just not the way it’s going to be. You see it. I mean, Blockbuster should have devoured Netflix when they had, they were holding all the cards and Netflix was this dumpy little startup. They didn’t. They’re like, we are a video cassette rental company. That’s what we do. We have brick and mortar stores. So they were not nimble. I mean, you see it all the time. I mean, this is one of the things I write about constantly in all my think tanks is how desert storm was the absolute worst war America ever fought. Not Vietnam, not Iraq and Afghanistan, desert storm, because we were at our best and we thought we were showing the world deterrence. We thought we were like, if you mess with the USA, we are gonna atomize you on the battlefield. We didn’t realize our enemies thought, oh, well, if you’re going to mess with America, don’t go anywhere near the battlefield. Don’t hit them where they’re strongest. So they’ve spent a whole generation developing asymmetric warfare, cyber economics, information OPs, terrorism, proxy war, all these things. And now we are really playing catch up.

Brett McKay: Yeah. One of my favorite writers who also writes about the theme of change is Jack London. And one of my favorite short stories he wrote is in a far country. And it’s got this awesome intro. I’ll link to it, but basically it’s just Jack London starts off the soliloquy about if you go off into a far country, which for him was like the great North, the Alaskan wilderness is that you have to change. And if you don’t adapt to the circumstances you find yourself in, you will die. And the whole story is basically after that’s recounting these three individuals who weren’t willing to adapt to the environment they found themselves in and they all ended up dying in this cabin of scurvy and freezing to death.

Max Brooks: Oh yeah. Yeah. This notion of change. And I say this as someone who hates change. I absolutely despise it. I love the way things just are. So I get it when people are like, I really don’t wanna change. I’m not comfortable. I’m like, I hear you. But unfortunately you have to, and you can see it through time. I mean, I’m very lucky that as a Gen X or I was raised by greatest generation parents who did not ask to have to adapt and did not ask to have to be more than themselves. It was forced upon them, but they did. You look at my dad and all his friends, these nebbishy guys, Hey, don’t you want a little nosh? These are not the guys you would think to crawl through snow, diffusing German S mines or hunting U-boats in the North Atlantic or being shot down over Regensburg on a B-17 bombing run. But they did it because they had to.

Brett McKay: Right. And I think it gets harder to change as you get older. I mean, I’m in midlife and I think, man, like I’ve spent 20 years developing a skillset. Now you’re saying I got to develop another skillset. I don’t have to do that, but you got to.

Max Brooks: Yeah. No, the, the funny thing is the toughest guy I’m friends with, you would not think so. He is the dorkiest dude you’ve ever seen. And yet he has had to change. He’s changed careers three times. He’s about my age. He got to start in magazines, magazines completely just cratered when the internet came and he was like, well, I’m just gonna have to reinvent myself. So he did. And he went and did something else. And then that whole business went away and now he’s doing something else. And then that looks like it’s going away and he doesn’t whine. He was like, Oh, what’s my path, my life, my career. He goes, ah, I got to go back to the drawing board because his family needs to eat. So he is the manliest guy I know.

Brett McKay: Right. Adaptable. I love it. So fear is another response we have to change. And you talked about the very beginning of this episode, you started writing about zombies cause you wanted to explore fear. What have you learned about managing fear from writing about zombies?

Max Brooks: You know the strange thing is I, there’s a lot of misconceptions about sort of what I do and how I am as a person because people say to me like, well, we write about all this stuff. Aren’t you worried you’re gonna scare people to which I say, no, no, you don’t understand. I’m already scared. And the studying of the threat calms me down. It’s like the first two acts of jaws for me are the scariest because I don’t know what’s out there. It’s this nebulous thing in the darkness and the depths. And I just don’t know what it is. Oh my God. But that moment, in the, when you’re looking in the top down shot on the Orca and you actually see the shark for the first time, then I was like, Oh, okay, now I know what I’m dealing with. So for me, the best way to deal with a fear is to study what you’re afraid of and figure out where the nose and the tail is and how heavy it is and what it does. ’cause then you actually have something tangible as opposed to the worst thing, which is your own imagination.

Brett McKay: When an interview you did, it was with hot guy. It was with Alan Alda. You talked about…

Max Brooks: Yeah, my mentor.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Max Brooks: My mentor.

Brett McKay: You talked about your mother taught you about investigating and researching as a way to overcome fear. What did your mother teach you about overcoming fear?

Max Brooks: Well, my mother, I mean, my mother is the reason I am who I am. There’s just no way around. I was deeply privileged to have the best mom ever because she was a thinker and an explorer. And so she always taught me, if you’re afraid of something, figure out exactly what it is you’re afraid of. And she, I watched her do this. When I was a kid in my ’20s working for the BBC in Africa, my mother was terrified. She bought herself a map of Africa and studied the geography of it. So that way, whenever there was a headline, violence in Mogadishu or there’s Ebola in Zaire or the Rwanda genocide, my mother knew exactly where Rwanda and Zaire and Somalia were, as opposed to where I was. And that calmed her down. So I got to watch her do that. And that’s always set me on my course to, if there’s a threat out there, if there’s something I’m really scared of, something in the news, well, study it, figure it out.

Brett McKay: Has writing about the survival stuff, has it nudged you to learn some survival skills yourself? Like how to start a fire without matches and how to filter water and things like that.

Max Brooks: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, it’s funny. I’ve become friends with Les Stroud.

Brett McKay: We’ve had Les Stroud on the podcast.

Max Brooks: Isn’t he awesome?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Max Brooks: I mean, Les is the real deal man. Les, like that’s the good part about growing up in show businesses. I can spot bullshit a mile away. So when I see some of the other survivalist reality shows, I’m like, oh, you’re a total fraud. Whereas Les, what I love about Les is he’s not afraid to fail on his own show. Remember on episodes of Survivorman, I would say at least a third of the time, he’ll try something and be like, no, this is too hard. I’m going to get killed. I can’t do this. I have to retreat, which then validates when he succeeds. And so I’ve always been a devotee and studying him, I’ve learned how to start. I don’t know how to start a fire with two sticks, but I can do flint and steel and char cloth, purifying water, big deal. Because I also, I live in Southern California and back to talk about my mom. My mom was a survivalist. It wasn’t called survivalism back then. It was called just being ready for an earthquake. So we always had a survival kit. We always had a survival plan. If there’s an earthquake, where do we meet? We had basic skills on how to disinfect a wound on what to eat and what not to eat. So my mom always knew that stuff. And to us now we call it prepping. You’re a prepper. But the truth is it’s literally just how poor people used to grow up in the great depression. And she was a depression kid.

Brett McKay: Right. Let’s talk about the Minecraft books. I really enjoy these. What I like about them is one, I got to like it’s something I can share with my daughter, right? And talk to her about that. It’s been fun, but also they’re fun to read. And what you do with them is with each chapter, there’s a lesson that you’re trying to explore about how to deal with change and how to deal with uncertainty. And one of the big themes in the island, which was the first one is learning from your mistakes, because in a survival situation, you’re in a new situation, you’re going to make mistakes. You don’t know what you’re doing, but mistakes in a survival situation can get you killed. So how do you make sure when you’re put in this new situation of uncertainty that you don’t make a mistake that will kill you or make things worse?

Max Brooks: Well, I think in a life or death situation, you have to be very cautious. Obviously one of the greatest sci-fi novels ever written for me was A Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein. And it’s in the future where kids have to go on a survival test to alien planets. And the theme of it is don’t be a tiger, be a cockroach. So don’t try to be all macho and cool. I’m gonna dominate man. No, no, no. You have to accept your natural place in the food chain and be a quiet looker and listener. So in situations like that, in life or death, no, no, no. You do not stride boldly into the light ’cause that’s where the saber-toothed cat is waiting for you. But in any other non-life or death situation, you have to take risks. You have to fall on your ass. You have to be humiliated and fail miserably. Millennials used to have that phrase, epic fail, as in like, well, I’m never going to have an epic fail. Well, then you’re never gonna live your life. You have to be in situations where you will fail miserably and spectacularly and then learn to recover ’cause that’s the only way you’re gonna move forward.

Brett McKay: How have you learned to not beat yourself up over your mistakes that you’ve made in your career?

Max Brooks: I am still learning because I know that even though I’m sitting here in the Attic recording this, if I were to say, oh, well, I’ve learned how to do this, somewhere telepathically, my wife would roll her eyes. So yeah, I beat up on myself a lot. I’ve always said that the only criticism of my books that hurt the worst are the ones where I agree with it because I get a lot of criticism and I’m like, yeah, whatever. But sometimes if I agree with a specific one, I’m like, oh, goddammit, they’re right. So yeah, no, I beat up on myself a lot. And, ’cause remember, the lessons of the island that I put in for, I always say Jack Black ’cause he read the audio book, the lesson for this characters are lessons that I’m still learning. I am not this wise sage sitting on a rock saying, oh, look at all the things I’ve mastered. I ain’t mastered nothing. These are the things that I know are right and I’m working towards. Will I ever master them? Who knows?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that at the end of the book, you lay out all the rules. There’s good stuff for anyone to know, but I’m glad that my daughter’s reading this stuff. Keep going, never give up, panic, drowns thought, don’t assume anything, fear can be conquered, anxiety must be endured. When the world changes, you’ve got to change with it. So it’s great stuff. And then in the second book, The Mountain, so the island, for those who don’t know, this is like a soul character who finds himself on the Minecraft island. I mean, he’s just bewildered. The opening line is like, why is the sun square? Why are my hands rectangles? What’s going on? And then it’s his journey of learning how to survive on the island. And then the second one, The Mountain, this is where he gets a friend. And then you bring in the social element of survival. And I think that’s where you shine with your work with like World War Z is exploring the social factor when it comes to survival and a disaster situation. How important is the social factor in surviving?

Max Brooks: It is incredibly important. And let’s clarify, I say this as someone who is anti-social. I am an anti-social, recluse only child, grew up in my room, would be very happy if I didn’t have to deal with people. You know, that moment in Castaway where Tom Hanks looks at the island and it’s just him. I was like, ah, awesome. But I know that is not how we survive. First of all, it starts with our basic evolution, which my mother was really fascinated by and would read to me books about primitive humans. We are in the middle of the food chain. We are not tigers. We are apes. Apes are in the middle of the food chain. And the only way we were able to thrive was to work together.

Max Brooks: And that has not changed. That’s why in The Mountain, I have the lesson that friendship is a survival skill, right? It’s not just about like, hey, dude, you’re really cool. Let’s hang out. It’s like, no, we need each other always. And one of my favorite movies is Jeremiah Johnson, Robert Redford. And you can be seen as sort of man on his own, man against the world, man by himself, which is bullshit because in the movie, he learns from other trappers when he’s coming up who teach him how to survive. And we all need that, whether you are a parent or whether you are in a job or you’re in the army. I, as a novelist, it looks like a solitary profession, but it is not. I have an amazing editor and I have a great team over at my publisher. And every day I get up when I’m researching a book and I talk to experts who helped me out and I bounce ideas off my wife who says, oh, you could do better with that or no, you’re on the right track. So you’re never alone and you got to embrace that. It’s great to be an individual and you should be, but you have to know the limits of your individuality and be man enough to admit when you need help.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. There’s this idea of the lone wolf. If there’s a lone wolf, he got kicked out of the pack because he was annoying.

Max Brooks: And he’s gonna die.

Brett McKay: And he’s gonna die.

Max Brooks: And I mean, this is one of the things I also hate about so many post-apocalyptic stories is this notion of like the lone badass, just taking names and laying down the law. And anybody who really believes that in a zombie apocalypse, they’re going to be the lone badass. I invite them to look at the average age of your local Somali warlord and see how long they live. Because if you want a zombie apocalypse, look at a failed state. You don’t see a lot of 80 year old Somali warlords.

Brett McKay: So you got another Minecraft book coming out, The village. What are you exploring in this one? It seems like things are getting even more complex.

Max Brooks: Oh yeah. This is the natural progression because obviously book one, you have to learn to live with yourself, figure yourself out. Book two, you got to learn to be a good friend, how to compromise and how to communicate and don’t lose all of yourself, but how much of yourself you got to give to work with somebody else. Book three is The Village where they come to a village and they learn how to be citizens in a community. And that is so important right now, because I see it all around me. I see it in think tank world. I see it as a parent. I see it when I turn on CNN, we are in a national crisis where we have forgotten what it means to be a citizen. We are all out for ourselves and we are on the road to ruin. And so I am trying to impart all the civics lessons that should be taught in schools about how to be a voter, how to be a customer, how to live in a village with other people, which are all really critical ’cause and Minecraft, if looked at from the right lens teaches you all those lessons. So like, what is the marketplace and capitalism and why is money good and how could money be bad and what is crime and punishment and why we need cops? Why do we vote?

Brett McKay: No, yeah, there’s some great stuff in here. You talk about economics. So one of them is talking about specialization moves everyone forward. It’s not the money that’s evil. It’s what people might do with it. You gotta understand supply and demand. And what’s interesting, my… You learn this when you play Minecraft. It’s been interesting to see how my kids, they learn how to, there’s a business that goes on there and you can trade with other people to get things that you need. And then also you have to deal with crime and punishment that you can steal from other people in the realms and you have to figure out how to deal with that. So yeah, I think it’s a fun game and it’s a fun series of books and it’s really cool what you’ve done with it. Where can people go to learn more about the new book and the rest of your work?

Max Brooks: Just follow me on X and my website, And I mean, I sound like a 1980s commercial that I grew up in. Wherever books are sold, but you know, wherever books are sold, you’re probably going to see the Minecraft books and maybe hopefully something else with my name on it.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Max Brooks, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Max Brooks: Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Max Brooks. He’s the author of several books, including World War Z and the recent Minecraft series. They’re all available on You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at We find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at We find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’ve done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review of a podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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